WorkLife in Industry: Thinking Outside the 9to5 box

In 2003, Jill Polzin decided to get a master’s degree in chemistry while continuing to work full-time in the drug-analysis group at Abbott Laboratoriesin Abbott Park, Illinois. Almost as soon as her manager had approved the request, Polzin discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She knocked on her manager’s door again and asked how they might be able to balance her full-time work, education plans, and a growing family. She negotiated a flexible schedule working four 10-hour days per week and used on-site daycare after her daughter was born. She completed her master’s degree in 3.5 years. “If I had been forced to stick with set hours, it would have been too stressful,” Polzin says.

Personal life doesn’t always fit neatly outside a typical 9-to-5 workday. In recognition of this, many corporations allow informal arrangements between employees and managers to cover an occasional morning or afternoon away from work. And some companies have formal work-life balance policies such as flexible work schedules, on-site daycare, tuition reimbursement, and even on-site courses–all intended to attract and retain employees.

Naturally, employers and employees have different motivations: Whereas employees seek work-life options that are tailored to their individual needs, companies offer as much flexibility as possible to attract the best employees. But whatever the motivations, a corporate culture that values flexibility and has supportive managers can make negotiating for a different schedule far easier.

Rule, not exception

At some companies, flexible work schedules have become more common than the usual 9 to 5. Company representatives from Abbott and from AstraZeneca’s U.S. headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, estimate that nine out of 10 employees use flexible scheduling, either formally or informally. An informal arrangement could allow a parent to leave early occasionally to attend a child’s soccer game or ballet lessons, to work late another evening, or to catch up on the weekend. More formal arrangements might include, for example, working 9 hours Monday through Thursday in exchange for Friday afternoon off. In more structured arrangements, an employee might combine a flexible Friday policy with telecommuting on Friday morning, says Andrea Moselle, AstraZeneca’s senior manager of work-life. Importantly, these companies don’t ask questions about their employees’ personal lives. “The reason why they want to do it is not part of the decision-making. It’s really whether [the arrangement] can meet the individual and the business needs,” Moselle says.

While continuing to work full-time in the informatics group at AstraZeneca, Kaushal Desai is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, using flextime to attend courses and seminars. Collaborations with workers at the company offices in Sweden mean he often comes to work early, so he has arranged with his manager to leave early for afternoon courses. He telecommutes a couple of times per month to have more time at home to complete course assignments. Michael Ramaker, associate director of informatics, used a similar strategy to complete his MBA in 2005 while working full-time. Even after completing the degree, he still uses flextime to have an occasional free Friday afternoon to play golf when his professional responsibilities allow it.

Flexible schedules have to fit the needs of the company. For some companies, such as defense contractors, telecommuting options don’t work as well because of the volume of work on classified projects. BAE Systems, a global defense and aerospace company, offers a work schedule called 9/80, where employees work 9-hour days for 9 days and everyone in the group has every other Friday off. They introduced the schedule in 1996 to attract and retain employees during the dot-com boom, says Amy Shevlin, vice president

Sabbaticals for everyone

Extended paid leaves provide another opportunity for employees to spend time with family or achieve personal goals, such as international volunteer work or, say, climbing Mount Everest. For almost 30 years, Intel employees in North America have had the opportunity to take paid 8-week sabbaticals after every 7 years that they work at the company. During that time, they’re expected to shut off their e-mail, not check voice mail, and spend the time in whatever way they wish.

During her 24 years at Intel, Elizabeth Rice, who designs computer chips in Portland, Oregon, has taken three sabbaticals. The constant push to build the next innovative technology creates an intense environment, she says: “Without the sabbatical time to step back and recharge, I don’t know that I could have kept up with the pace.” Rice spent her first sabbatical with her children when they were young, and she and her husband took sailing and hiking trips during the second. In 2006, she spent 2 weeks in Europe and a month in Kenya and Uganda traveling and doing AIDS-education volunteer work.

Evolving arrangements

A strong history working for a company can help facilitate solutions that fit changing circumstances. For the first 3 years that Corinne Murat worked at Schlumberger, a global oil-field-services company headquartered in Paris, France, and Houston, Texas, she worked as an engineer on offshore oil platforms. She’d spend 3-month periods in Nigeria, which included 2 to 3 weeks at a time at sea followed by a week on base. She’d then have 3 weeks at home before returning. “I really liked it,” she says.

But in 2000, she asked for a transfer to a technology center near Paris where she could work as a software engineer and have a more stable home life. Then, in 2005, after the birth of her first child, Murat and her husband decided that they wanted to raise their family in Montpellier in the south of France. Wanting to keep her job, Murat asked her manager if they could work out a telecommuting arrangement that would allow her to work 80% of the time from her new home, three and a half hours from the office in Paris.

Trust was critical, Murat says. “[This kind of work arrangement] has to be initiated from the employee first to make it work. It was important that I know the people well, and that people know me as well.” Murat has maintained that schedule for the past 2 years, traveling to Paris for 3 days every 3 weeks to meet with her manager and other team members. Otherwise, she keeps her own schedule and connects with colleagues through e-mail, phone, and conferences via webcam. Now a mother of two, she’s grateful for the added time with her family and was promoted earlier this year to senior software engineer.

Part-time opportunities

In some cases, a part-time arrangement can work for both the employee and the company. “Working part-time is not an accommodation but a means to retain employees, retain talent and productivity and output,” says Donna Davila, a Ph.D. toxicologist in Abbott’s global preclinical safety group. “When you have happy employees that know that you care about them, they’re more loyal and work hard to show you that they can make things work.” Four years ago, when she and her husband adopted two children, Davila decided she wanted more time at home to build a family bond with them. With the help of the company’s human resources department and her manager, Davila crafted a 25-hour work schedule that she eventually bumped up to 30 hours. She’s at home on Mondays, when there are few meetings in her group at work. She typically works until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

A manager’s worst fear is that a job won’t be covered, Davila says, so it’s important to go to your supervisor with a clear plan that shows that the job will get done even with reduced hours. “Consider the needs of the job and the company,” she advises, and be considerate of colleagues. Supportive colleagues can help make a part-time position work, Davila says, and it’s important to help them as well, even with limited hours on the job. She makes it a priority to support co-workers when they face difficult deadlines such as drug filings. She remains available by phone when she’s out of the office.

Finding the balance

The opportunity to earn a good salary and benefits while bringing ideas to the marketplace leads many scientists and engineers to choose jobs in industry. But perks such as flexible schedules and educational opportunities can make work-life balance a competitive factor in choosing one job rather than another.

Immediately after Ramaker finished his Ph.D. in bioengineering, he didn’t think much about work-life balance. He’d gotten used to working 14-hour days and thought he’d carry on doing that in his job. “What I found out doing that for 3 or 4 years was that I got burned out pretty quickly.” he says. “As someone who has now been working 10 years, [that balance is] an important thing to consider.”

Reclaiming Life From Work

Feature Index: Work and Life in the Balance